An unlikely face of homelessness

For seven years, she was generally able to hide her descent from an upper-middle-class life to homelessness. And one morning, she decided it was time to let the world know.

BRATTLEBORO — I just don't quite know where to begin with this interview. She doesn't, either.

“Just start talking,” I say gently. “Just tell me your story. How did all this start? How did you get here?"

She pauses and thinks, looking lost.

The very first thing she thinks to say breaks my heart.

“I used to be pretty,” she says ruefully, her voice trembling, her hands shaking.

She takes a drag on her cigarette, tapping the ashes into a small tin can on the coffee table. The light from this fall day rapidly fading and casting her in shadow as she sits on the couch of a friend. Outside, the noises of late-afternoon traffic commingle with the sounds of the Whetstone Brook flowing serenely by the highway.

This is the first time we met in real life, though we've known each other on Facebook for a few months.

One day before my visit, she shared a simple, stark status, a reality that she says she's been hiding for far too long. And she also made an effort to contact me because she has a story to tell.

“I am homeless,” she wrote to the world at 7:08 a.m. on Oct. 29.

* * *

She has lived in Windham County all her adult life, she says, in an upper-middle-class lifestyle, a “successful person who did everything.” She worked for years as an entrepreneur. She was thanked in her town's annual town report for her service when she stepped down from a board on which she served with distinction.

She volunteered for Rescue as an EMT. “I could save your life,” she says. “And I did."

She pats her eyes dry with a dishtowel. As I take notes, I grimace with each sad turn that brought her to this place.

“I'm so sorry,” I say, several times - and one time too many.

She abruptly implores me to stop saying that.

I force a smile, and I agree to stop sympathizing with her - on the condition that she stop her persistent apologizing for her appearance and for her lack of composure, that she stop expressing doubt that there's no merit to my listening to her talk about her journey. I assure her that if I feel that way, I'll diplomatically stop the interview and leave. But for now, I say, I'm staying put.

We agree to the deal. A mutual chuckle cuts through some of the despair overlaying this conversation. Ever so slightly.

* * *

“I was an upper-middle-class woman, and a series of events made this a reality,” my friend says.

She says that when her child was born with severe special needs, she and her husband got a warning from the hospital.

“What they tell you is you're probably going to lose your marriage,” she says. “And I did."

She says the divorce, from a husband of substantial means, left her with little, and it marked her descent into homelessness.

Her food-service business, once successful and brimming with potential and growth, became increasingly less viable. As small-business owners tend to do, she poured significant resources into her enterprise to keep it afloat, but it eventually failed, she says. Eventually, she had to turn to personal bankruptcy. She lost her house.

“I lived in motels until my money ran out,” she says. For four full years, a friend let her stay on his couch. “Understandably, he wanted his space back."

Still, she did have work at a local business, for eight-something an hour - until she was diagnosed with melanoma last year.

She couldn't work for a few months. She lost her job. “They replaced me,” she says. She couldn't get unemployment.

She's better, she says. But she was uninsured and now has medical debt looming over her. Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth, she guesses.

And now, at age 67, she can't find anyone to hire her.

“They don't hire people this old,” she says. “I can't get a job - and I'm smart. These applications go nowhere. I'm not going to work again."

She has been on a waiting list for Section 8 housing for two years. A room might be available, but she can't get information. And if she needs a deposit or means of any sort, she's sunk.

In the background, we can hear her friend puttering around upstairs. “If he decides I have to go tomorrow, I'd have no place to go,” she says. “I'm one step from being out on the street."

She gets a very small Social Security check and $80 per month in food stamps, “and that won't feed me,” she says.

“I live on peanuts,” she says sardonically. She picks up a mostly empty can of peanuts, shaking it for emphasis.

* * *

My friend, who hid her homelessness, her poverty from most of the world for a full seven years, followed up her original post with similarly declarative statements that day. She posted additional thoughts at 7:19, 7:25, 7:34, 7:37, 7:43, 7:46, 8:00, 8:23, 8:29, and 8:38, and then again at 4:19, 4:26, and 8:43 - raw and searing updates that cut through the steady stream of dog photos and political memes, of food shots and selfies.

For her, the idea to “come out” about her housing status came like a thunderbolt. It just hit.

“I felt so relieved,” she says. “I'm not one for secrets."

“I don't want anybody's pity,” she says. “I don't want anyone's handouts. I just want the truth to be out there. It's about truth."

She knows she is not alone. She knows there are hundreds of people in her predicament - and worse. If nothing else, right here and right now, she has a friend with a couch.

She wants the world simply to know that this can happen. “People can go from normal to abject poverty,” she says. Her voice is no longer shaking. It's clearer, more forceful, more confident. She thinks her example can “somehow, somewhere help somebody understand that this really can happen."

Her decision to publicly state the three words “I am homeless” has been met with discomfort, she says. Her friends are shocked and uncomfortable with her very public disclosure. They don't know what to make of it.

“They don't want to see me,” she says. “They don't want to know it. They don't want to feel it.”

The people she knew in her old life, seemingly a lifetime ago? They would be “mortified” by her circumstances, she suspects.

She hasn't slept for two nights. She is justifiably spooked about more bad luck, worried that “this will come back on me in bad ways."

But she tells her story nonetheless.

She wants people to be confronted with the truth of her situation to raise awareness about the people who do not present as homeless, the people who are off society's radar.

She says that if she can get a roof over her head, she'll spend her days volunteering in a soup kitchen or community center “and not just sit here."

“I'll do what I can to help other people,” she says.

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